Old Montreal’s heritage is far from frozen in time; it is diverse, alive, and can be experienced every day. Discover portraits of timeless buildings, each one a page of history proposed by Heritage Montreal as part of a special collaboration with the SDC Old Montreal.
During the first half of the 19th century, Montreal was in transition. The architectural language of the British neoclassical style was gradually emerging, notably in the designs of official and public buildings. Some projects were quite daring, like the majestic Bonsecours Market, with its neoclassical lines, which when inaugurated in 1847 signalled definite optimism about the future of our merchant city, which would go on to become a vital commercial hub in North America. New kinds of business were supplanting the fur trade, and this demanded a reconfiguration of land planning, redevelopment of the port, and new buildings: markets, public squares, rooming houses, warehouses, government buildings—and many hotels.
The former Rasco Hotel is on Saint-Paul Street, just steps from Bonsecours Market. Built between 1834 and 1836 by stonemasons Thomas McGrath and Vital Gibault, the neoclassical building was soon renowned as a prestigious establishment. Travellers—including, famously, Charles Dickens, who stayed there in 1842—enjoyed refined interior décor behind the sober cut-stone façade. Beginning in the 1840s, the ground-floor spaces housed modest shops. In 1868, the stone arcades gave way to large picture windows separated by cast-iron pilasters, which were more in keeping with the commercial character of Saint-Paul Street. The hotel later changed owners and names: it became Mack’s Hotel, and later the Bytown, during the 1870s and 1880s. By the 1970s, it stood abandoned, and was damaged by fire in 1977. A few years later, the City of Montreal rented out the property under a 63-year emphyteutic lease, and the tenant undertook a complete restoration, repurposing the ground floor as stores and restaurants, and the upper floors as office spaces.
The work of the firm Béïque Legault Thuot Architectes (BLTA), the Hotel William Gray includes a glass atrium/tower of contemporary design that elegantly joins two complexes that were classified as historical monuments in the 1960s: the Maison Edward-William-Gray (1785) and Maison du Cabinet-de-Côme-Séraphin-Cherrier (1877). With their roofs pierced by dormer windows and flanked by firewalls, both of them clearly exhibit the influence of French Regime construction methods, which persisted even after the British Conquest. In the late 18th century, the two buildings that comprised the Maison Edward-William-Gray were residential dwellings, and after the construction of the new courthouse on nearby Notre-Dame Street in the early 1850s, they also housed lawyers’ offices (at the time, this part of the old city was nicknamed “the lawyers’ district”). The buildings later had many uses, including a printing house, stores, a stable, restaurant and a brew house.
Photo: Hotel William Gray © Alexi Hobbs